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Sowing the seeds of a community garden

Jessica Letteer, of Luzerne, started the Wilkes-Barre Community Gardens in 2020 after trying to find ways for city taxpayers to save money on waste costs while also learning how to utilize organic waste to build soil. Letteer is shown here working in the garden last summer.
Lois A. Grimm
Jessica Letteer of Luzerne started the Wilkes-Barre Community Gardens in 2020 after trying to find ways for city taxpayers to save money on waste costs while also learning how to utilize organic waste to build soil. Letteer is shown here working in the garden last summer.

When Wilkes-Barre Area Community Gardens broke ground in 2020 at their South River Street location, seeds were sown for much more than produce and herbs; it began a growing local movement to address food insecurity in the community and improve the quality of life for residents.

Jessica Letteer of Luzerne, along with her mother, started the garden on an abandoned piece of land close to downtown Wilkes-Barre. The idea, Letteer said, was to utilize plots of land that were under the ownership of the city but that no one else was using. Doing so would reduce waste removal costs for taxpayers.

“(A few of us) were talking online about ways that Wilkes-Barre could minimize the recycling and garbage that they’re putting out in the landfills. (Wilkes-Barre City) Council was talking about raising prices for taxpayers to get rid of trash. I said we should talk to people about reducing their waste,” Letteer said. She added that she’s long been interested in the agricultural benefits of using organic waste matter in soil building.

According to a report by the Environmental Protection Agency, using waste in soil generation significantly cuts down on methane gasses produced by landfills. Compost also leads to larger harvests, enhances water retention in soil and can eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers.

Community garden grows

Letteer wouldn’t be a committee of one for long. Shortly after the start of the garden’s second year, Cory Ruda of Hanover Township and Adam Deroner of Plains joined after finding out about the garden on social media. The backbone of the group was solidified.

“I thought.. this would be a great way to help people. We just showed up and said we know nothing but we’re here to help and Jess was just like, awesome,” Deroner said.

Deroner said that Letteer taught him and Ruda so much about gardening that first year. Now they are now able to teach others. “Being able to see people get what they need and the act of working on the garden is a benefit,” said Deroner.

For Ruda’s part, his involvement in the garden and seeing how his labor could help the community inspired him to switch jobs; one in which he helps families find much-needed services.

“I thought if my volunteering is helping people, why not make my job a way to help people too,” Ruda said.

Free produce for everyone

The garden’s bounty is free for everyone. You won’t find fences or locks in the garden. The founders and volunteers want anyone who needs food to have access to it.

From the elderly woman who comes every week to collect a week’s worth of veggies, to the mom who was able to feed her kids fresh produce after months of not being able to afford it, the rapport between the group and the community has grown immensely since the inaugural growing season. Ruda noted people who first visited the garden either out of curiosity or to get fresh produce have become volunteers. He also emphasized the group never expects anything in return from those using the garden.

“If you show up once or you show up 100 times, we’re happy to have you,” Ruda said.

Wilkes-Barre Community Gardens wants to eliminate the stigma often felt by people in need, whether it be food, clothing or assistance. That’s why members also hold clothing collections and giveaways and host community events.

Adding more community gardens in Wilkes-Barre

Interest in the community garden has grown so much, the group is hoping to add more locations across the city and is asking the public for help to make that happen.

“This is a good problem to have but we’ve just about maxed out our space on South Franklin Street,” Deroner said.

While the group has been trying to work with the city to take over abandoned or unused land in other neighborhoods, it has been a slow process. Goals for this year include more community outreach, starting at least three more gardens and a public forum to expand programs for residents.

The location of the garden has proven to be a boon for the neighborhood’s residents, as many of them don’t drive and can’t get downtown where organizations typically provide aid.

“So many people thanked us for having an event here (on South Franklin Street) because they don’t have transportation,” Ruda said.

Deroner agreed, saying that almost everyone who uses the garden walks.

“This is why we want to have so many more locations because essentially each plot of land has this circle of influence where people can walk to it. So the more locations we can get throughout the city, the more people we can help and the more of the city we can cover,” he said.

Growing season begins

The growing season has already begun for gardeners, including Wilkes-Barre Community Gardens. In February, seeds were started indoors with more to come in March.

If you’re interested in starting your own seeds, it’s not too late! Using a seed-starting mix, fill a container with potting mix and then pat it down until the soil is firm but not hard. Next plant seeds to the depths suggested. Be sure to label the seeds so that you remember what you planted. Place your containers near a south facing window for light or put a bright white light about six inches above the soil (?on a heat map?). Water your seeds regularly with a pitcher or watering can that produces a gentle, rain-like sprinkle. You know you've watered enough when the soil is moist and some water drains from the bottom of your container. If the seedlings are not holding enough water, cover with plastic for a few days to create a mini greenhouse effect.

To make your own potting mix, combine soil from your backyard and decomposed crushed leaves, mulch or peat.

There may be an added benefit to digging around in the garden and getting your hands dirty.

Research has shown that simply touching soil produces measurable increases in serotonin, a mood booster. Similarly, there’s another phenomenon called the “harvest high” which also boosts the moods of gardeners whether it’s food, flower, or herb related. Both types of mood elevators underscore the importance of getting in touch with our food and in turn, our communities.